Fri 11 Oct 2013
Defiance tells about one of the lesser known episodes of World War II in which a group of Polish Jews saved themselves from the ghettos and the executions by the German occupiers and their local collaborators and formed a partisans unit in the forests of Belarus. They were led by the Bielski brothers and succeeded to hide more than one thousand of people in the forests, to fight against the German occupiers, and also to form a community that survived the harsh weather and natural conditions in the woods, the fights with the enemies, and also the sometimes tense relations with other non-Jewish partisan groups and with the local population. The story was told in the last decade in several books and historic studies, some revealing not only the heroic story but also some more controversial aspects.
The film directed by Edward Zwick focuses on the first year in the three that the group spent in the forests, the year that the group was formed, and the first winter that they had to survive in the woods. It’s a story of heroism and survival, of revenge and resilience. Two of the three brothers (originally they were four) are in the center of the story – Tuvia, the leader (Daniel Craig) and Zus the fighter (Liev Schreiber) who at some point joins the Soviet partisans. Both give very credible performances, their dilemma between personal revenge and saving lives, and their conflicts in the ways the group is to be led are well described. Heroism, faith, will to survive and to keep the human dimensions of life are the main motivations of the characters and they come strong on screen. Besides good acting, authenticity and attention to the details in film making are other visible qualities of this movie, together with fluent story telling. The only questionable aspect is the one related to the language – the Jewish characters speak English, they turn sometimes to Russian when speaking with the Soviet partisans and to the local population (was not this supposed to be rather Polish?) in a mix and with switches that are not clear at all and lack authenticity. I am not sure what the better solution would have been, this may be the best an American production can do without losing the American audiences for whom big screen movies must be mostly or fully spoken in English, I guess.
Defiance belongs to a genre which does not have too many films in its records, the one that deals with the Jewish Resistance during World War II, representing Jews not only as victims but also fighting back, defending themselves and sometimes taking revenge on their murderers and oppressors. The other illustrious example is Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds which was produced and released around the same time, which was a declared work of fiction. Defiance openly advertises being inspired by true events, and it succeeds to present a credible and in some moments moving picture of the few and the brave who had the courage to resist. There is no hint in the film itself or warning in the text introduction or epilogue about the controversies related to the darker aspects of the story, and this is maybe the principal minus of this production.